Monthly Archives: June 2020

Monday, June 29 update

NYS update: If I only had a time machine, I would have loved to have seen people’s faces when they looked at this screenshot. “I can see it’s Andrew Cuomo petting Jabba the Hutt… but what’s with the Hitchhiker’s Guide reference?”

To the summit of Mount Corona with the flag! The governor is now relying on papier-mache stunts to get back into the media cycle just (checks watch) 10 days after he said he was signing off. (Thank God he didn’t task someone with producing a room-sized diorama of this.) The mounting COVID crisis in the hot states is having dramatic effects on people in the affected areas, yet you can tell it’s also having an effect on Cuomo’s more controlling instincts as well. It’s not as if these instincts are simply automatically “bad” — strong instincts can be beneficial. It’s just interesting to watch the Cuomonian way of things playing out.

Suddenly, the governor is laying down the law on fireworks, which isn’t a bad thing, especially because fireworks are not “just good clean fun”:

Spectrum News reports Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said it is investigating after someone opened the front door at a residence in New Scotland, New York, and tossed a lit firework inside Saturday night. An Albany County Sheriff’s Office worker was at the Albany-area home with his family, watching TV on the couch with his 4-year-old daughter, when the incident occurred around 10 p.m. The firework exploded and burned an area rug, Apple said. The employee and his wife were able to put out the fire with a pillow before it caused further damage.

So there is most welcome news that the state troopers are going to be patrolling our southern borders to keep those vile Pennsylvania products from being smuggled in. Oh, and I’m guessing that if they notice cars with certain out-of-state license plates, so much the better. The governor continued his musings on making the Empire State ever more impregnable later in the afternoon. The state that got threatened with a spanking because it wouldn’t comply with federal traveler ID rules is now contemplating stuff that seems just a few steps away from a visa.

Incoming air travelers to New York could soon be asked to fill out forms that would aid the state’s new policy on quarantines for people from locations where the coronavirus is still spreading rapidly. It’s unclear what information travelers would be asked to submit on the forms, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo described them as similar to the landing cards many countries use for international travelers. The cards typically gather basic information about where passengers are coming from, how long they plan to be in a country and whether they’re bringing in certain items.

Whether we like it or not, or have honestly mixed feelings about it, the combination of Cuomo and circumstances is certainly setting New York on a distinctive course for at least the next few years. It’s impossible to predict what happens next, but we’re either striking out in a good direction, or slipping down a gentle slope that leads to something bizarre.

Onondaga County update: CE McMahon does not use visual aids in his briefings, but here’s a depiction of COVID-19’s economic impact on local Upstate government budgets.

But it’s one more day to the county’s fiscal-year midpoint, and here’s some strange and almost shocking news: not only were the two sales tax payments from the state not as bad a disaster as feared, but year-over-year sales tax receipts were actually… up?

A $17.2 million payment received today was $6.9 million higher than the same sales tax installment a year ago. It represents a portion of sales taxes collected from certain retailers from March through May. A second payment, due Tuesday, covers a portion of sales tax collected during the first three weeks in June. That payment will be $11.2 million, or 28 percent lower than a year ago. Combining the two payments leaves the county about $3.8 million ahead of last year.

So, this means that maybe 2020 might just be gutwrenchingly awful instead of suicidally horrific to the county budget. A lot of the CE’s briefing today was about economic matters – the sales tax payments, how much the county spent on PPE and other emergency measures in the early pandemic — about $6 million, which FEMA may or may not reimburse. I still wonder how much was really spent, recalling the 60 ventilators and the surprisingly fast ramp-up in testing. It all seems like a very long time ago.

Numbers were delivered at today’s briefing as usual. Two deaths (the first in a few days) but all else in expected ranges. The key statistic of the day was the recently reported fact that 60% of positives over the past weekend were connected to just three businesses — one of them the Oswego apple plant, and the other two were smaller workplaces of 5-10 employees each, which McMahon demurred identifying but said he would later once the health department was done with them. More details were given about the new executive order requiring businesses to turn over employee rosters. (I don’t know how that works for large employers like SU or Upstate, but okay.) The truth is that CNY is now embarking on that part of recovery that much of the rest of the world is now on — and that the entire rest of the country will be on someday — where limited outbreaks at factories and institutions keep popping up and being routinely contained.

On a sad note – and this piece of news probably means nothing to people outside of Syracuse, or people who aren’t of a certain age – Benny Mardones has gone into the night. I wasn’t a big fan, but this song defines what it meant to live in Syracuse during the 1980s. We were his, he was ours, and we all weren’t much — but it was something.

Sunday, June 28: Spirals

It’s going to be a grievous summer for the remainder of the remnant of the United States. Those of us who have closely followed the daily ups and downs of New York State’s statewide and local COVID responses over the last three months, are having a queasy feeling of deja vu as we watch what’s happening — or, sadly, failing to happen — in the “hot states” of Texas, Florida, Arizona, and more to come. We’ve now joined the international club of onlookers — Singapore, South Korea, Italy — who have walked over these same hot coals, who tried to warn and advise. Voices who were ignored by many Northeasterners, with the same flounce of exceptional petticoats that we have seen from the red states this past spring.

It’s a sad club to be in, and the price of admission was devastatingly high. But here we are, watching it unfold all over again:

The overall New York State story, aside from the hideous death toll that struck New York City and nursing homes (and that scandal must not be allowed to drop), was somewhat better than it had a right to be. The lack of real connection between upstate and downstate helped spare much of the state from being overwhelmed, yet everyone heard the same messages from Albany. Unfortunately, national and even statewide media coverage barely picked up on either the troubling regional failures (the situation in WNY is still distinctly different from the rest of upstate north of the Catskills) or successes.

I may be biased, but I think Onondaga County and CNY was one of those regional successes. I’ve previously noted the term “virtuous spiral” as an opposite of a “vicious spiral” — a pattern where good decisions lay the groundwork for future good decisions. While the jury is still out on the efficacy of the local economic response, certainly the public health response to COVID in CNY has been in a virtuous spiral. This has been a coordinated effort between elected officials, hospital and educational leaders, and of course, the public. However, this spiral did not begin in March. There were other local roots of the spiral — such as city and county governments that have learned to cooperate in recent years; newly elected leaders with energy and ambition; and, it has to be said, a toughened, mentally hardy population that has been winnowed down to either those who are really committed to being here, or those who have no place else to go. (That part took decades of economic pain to create.)

But Onondaga County’s testing situation, back in March, looked a good deal like the Florida example above — one drive-through center operating at full tilt (for symptomatic patients only) and a hodgepodge of hospital and private clinics running tests. Delays in results were 7-10 days, not the 24-48 hours we enjoy now. The threat of data pollution was constant. Confusion about mask-wearing, if not exactly outright resistance, was widespread. (And that was before all of the nursing home shock and reopening phase drama started…)

It’s not as if a “virtuous spiral” means smooth sailing. It just means that you are more likely to make optimal choices at critical decision points — and sometimes those critical decision points aren’t clear.

Right now, in the “hot states,” there are stories we’re not hearing about. There are many, many citizens in these states who are doing their best to find out about and follow what was learned in Singapore, South Korea, and New York State. Unfortunately for them, their virtuous spirals are likely confined to their own households or — if they’re lucky — their municipalities or counties. They might have sensible governors, or they might not. There is probably innovation and smart decision-making at these local levels that would benefit everyone else in a second wave (including us here in New York). But I’m afraid we won’t hear very much about them. It is doubtful that the national media will end their obsession with the idea of covering “the national response” (there is no national response, and, where meeting this crisis and perhaps future ones are concerned, there is no nation).

Onondaga County recovered from these early challenges with testing availability — much of the daily briefings in March and April were taken up with the nitty gritty of how to develop a network of labs and how to keep rogue labs from poisoning the data well. In May, the fight was to establish a mobile testing practice to combat institutional spread, for those lessons could later be applied during expected reopening phases. The daily county briefings did much to make the public understand the entire process of setting up a COVID-fighting infrastructure (in itself, a vital part of the virtuous spiral enabling the all-important public buy-in for future initiatives).

At some point, however, we will probably begin to see whether or not — or where else in the U.S. — virtuous spirals will begin to form, and where vicious spirals will become apparent. Some states and localities may surprise us. (Who expected New York City’s response to be so inept, who expected Buffalo to lag so far behind, and who expected the North Country to not, in fact, go into fullscale riots over masks?) In some of these states, the current challenges over testing will find quick solutions. Others will just spin their wheels even deeper into the mud of political polarization while the refrigerated trucks line up.

What happens this summer will determine more than ever the separate fates of the United States. A virtuous spiral, wherever it may be happening, is definitely one curve that we don’t want to flatten.

Friday, June 26 update

NYS update: Did Texas actually help New York out with anything three months ago during the ventilator crisis? I don’t remember, but the governor is going to make sure that everyone knows that New York, though tough, is full of love for its fellow states. They will have to submit to a humiliating lecture first, of course, because New York is also smart and has no COVID-related skeletons in its closet. Welcome to our family, Texans and Floridians. Father Knows Best.

However, the federal courts don’t think so and have started poking some holes in those all-important phase rules.

U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe issued a preliminary injunction Friday blocking New York from enforcing its prior cap, which limited religious institutions to 25% of their capacity in Phase 2 of the state’s reopening process and 33% in Phase 4. Instead, religious facilities will face the same 50% indoor capacity limit that restaurants and businesses currently face in New York. Sharpe also barred the state from enforcing any capacity limit on outdoor gatherings. It wasn’t immediately clear Friday whether his ruling applied to all outdoor events or only religious services.

I don’t know what Cuomo’s game is with the State Fair and why he hasn’t just cancelled it already. I can’t imagine what needs to be looked at over the next two weeks that we don’t already know. His obsession with State Fair head counts and duration is already well known. Dude. I’m a CNY’er and the State Fair is the closest thing we have to a religion, and I’m not brokenhearted if we can’t have it this year. I don’t know anybody who is.

There is a story in the North Country (Gouverneur) I’ve been following for a few days — a sad one, but hopefully one that can take the Black Lives Matter discussion in its own direction up there. A teen named Treyanna Summerville died after years of abuse by her mother, and her high school friends and black community members want to know why child services never took their reports seriously. But there seems to be a certain squeamishness among whites about turning the protest over her death into a “BLM thing.”

Gouverneur is 87 percent white, and last year made national news after a 10 year-old black girl was violently assaulted by two white classmates on a school bus. Baxtron says much of people’s resistance to come out on Saturday—comes down to fear. “Why would they not come out? You know. If they’re afraid of the backlash of those who have a problem with the title of Black Lives Matter? If they’re afraid of how they’re going to be judged when they come out? And they pray or they speak on behalf of this young lady? Then they need to get right with themselves.”

After a lot of back and forth with organizers of Saturday’s march, Emily Burgess, Treyanna’s friend, decided she wants to be there. Treyanna’s brother Isiah Samuels also plans to attend. When defining what justice for Treyanna would mean, Emily Burgess and Baxtron use nearly the exact same words—they want to hold authorities who failed Treyanna accountable. “I want the police to understand that when they picked her up and took her home they were taking her back to a hostile environment.” It’s just the boundaries of that hostile environment—where they begin and where they end—that the two might see differently.

How about turning it into a Black Girls Matter event? That would make it the town’s own unique contribution to the movement. (Also: Growing up black in the Adirondacks.)

Onondaga County update: On my way in to work today I saw quite a few Phase 4 celebratory yard signs posted outside of restaurants and businesses — “Welcome back! We missed you!” Today’s county briefing was not a victory lap but was pretty meaty, and you know they mean business when Dr. Gupta is waiting on stage.

As usual, the stats: Thirty-eight hospitalized, of which only 25 are actually sick (that’s 13 people waiting to go back to nursing homes). Eight in the ICU. No deaths today. Sixteen new cases, with four community spread. Going forward, there will be a new metric reported — “community spread infection rate,” which as of now stands at 0.3%. 2,121 regional tests for the week. (Much like the governor is obsessed with saying no one knew the virus was coming from Italy — long after it’s necessary to be obsessed — the CE was sure to remind everyone that we are killing the mandated 775 tests per week, yo.)

McMahon reported that an uptick in Onondaga County’s new positives this week was indeed related to Champlain Valley Specialties in Oswego, and that this major outbreak (now thought to be contained) consisted of 59% of the county’s new positives this week. This was a segue for his new executive order announcement: local businesses are going to be required to give their employee rosters to the health department if any of their staff tests positive. This is so possible contacts can be urged to come in for tests (they won’t be required to be tested). It’s also to keep facility-based outbreaks from skewing future data and clouding the all-important community spread metric. (“We’ve built up an infrastructure so we can live with the virus.”)

When asked about the virus crisis in Florida and Texas etc., McMahon seemed reluctant to jump on the horror bandwagon. He pointed out that back when the county only had resources to test symptomatic people, our positive rate was more than 8% (some of the “hot states” have been around 10%). If hot states are only able to test sick people, that’s what the numbers are going to look like, though they could certainly get worse and in any case, the swamped ICU’s are the real indicator of disaster.

(There’s a lot of talk about pool testing now, as a way to deal with a massive multi-state outbreak — but that’s only necessary because so many states’ health infrastructures and political climates are so terrible. The pool testing strategy may produce quicker results, but does not do much to build up and season a robust and responsive public health infrastructure that is stronger than politics.)

That said, the CE issued a firm call for continued mask-wearing and social distancing and warned against people getting too comfortable. As he is typically reluctant to lecture, this actually counts as a strong statement from him. Dr. Gupta was doing a bit more than this when it was her turn — characterizing the virus as “clever and aggressive” and warning that it was highly variable in how it presented in young vs. old. I should think that the county health officials are just as weirded out as Cuomo is lately with what seems to be going on unchecked in the current hot states, making for more of a willingness to be vivid. (“So you’re tired of social distancing — but the virus is not tired of you.”)

The CE is still being wussy about getting tested himself, but revealed that one of his kids had to have a test as part of a doctor visit and that, since the kid was negative, well whew, that is a pretty good indicator he doesn’t have it either, right? I sympathize with any possible squeamishness about getting tested and finding out you’re asymptomatic, because that would Complicate Things, but this is going to continue to be a running gag. (And if all of us, eventually, wind up being swabbed in order to make that weekly goal, this might eventually become controversial. Just sayin’.)

Wednesday, June 24 update

NYS update: Like a genie going back into his bottle for another thousand years, Governor Cuomo bid us all a fond but firm farewell last Friday as he w — no, wait.

These briefings will never really stop.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont today announced a joint incoming travel advisory that all individuals traveling from states with significant community spread of COVID-19 quarantine for a 14-day period from the time of last contact within the identified state.  This quarantine – effective midnight tonight – applies to any person arriving from a state with a positive test rate higher than 10 per 100,000 residents over a 7-day rolling average or a state with a 10% or higher positivity rate over a 7-day rolling average.  

So the rest of the nation now gets to enjoy what New York’s regions have gotten to experience for the last couple months — formulas and rolling averages and benchmarks laid down by the governor’s Top Men. Mind you, I’m not against protecting the progress we have all so painfully made in the Northeast, and I can’t say I feel bad about this move. It’s just that Cuomo stepping up to announce this at this particular moment in time — including a new set of metrics applied to other states (!) — is a rather aggressive move on his part. (Will there be a dashboard that Florida and Arizona snowbirds can check on every day?) If Trump doesn’t tweet up a storm about it tomorrow, that’s a sure sign that he’s truly distracted by the election.

You see, when other states threatened to quarantine New Yorkers several months ago, it was mostly short-term bluster, because they weren’t armed with rubrics. Because many other states don’t believe in data of any kind, much less wonky data. Cuomo’s people are probably game to create metrics on every single thing now — and while I agree with the urgency to keep the state safe, this tendency to quickly devise and disseminate new and ever more convoluted “data-driven” directives, using the TV bully pulpit, needs to be viewed with healthy skepticism as well, as there can easily be “lies, damned lies, and metrics.”

In other news: again, what’s the matter with Buffalo?

Erie County has seen an increase in the number of younger residents testing positive for Covid-19 over the past three weeks, creating concern that the state’s reopening could be impacting the spread of the coronavirus. The Western New York region also saw an uptick in Covid-19 hospitalizations Monday and Tuesday, according to state data. Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz shared new data Wednesday showing that in the past three weeks, the county has seen an unusual spike in the number of young people, including children, testing positive for the virus.

We know that red-state populations, and the politicians who use and abuse them, tend to not want to wear masks or engage in social distancing. Are we seeing evidence that “red regions” in New York are having similar, measurable problems? It’s difficult to make that case only because we don’t really have any other major urbanized/suburbanized reddish areas in the state on Buffalo’s level, to which we could compare. But WNY continues to struggle.

Onondaga County update: Things are obviously back to “new” normal again in Central New York, as CE McMahon has resumed awkward video ops with adorable newborn animals on display at the z — no, wait.

Frustrated by the governor’s changes to Phase 4 of New York’s coronavirus re-opening plan, Madison County Chairman John Becker said he’s taking a time out from a specially-appointed board that monitors Central New York’s progress... Becker said he’s going to skip participating in the conference calls for three days – to make a point. While Phase 4 was to be the fourth and final stage of the restart plan, certain businesses will still not be allowed to return, Cuomo said today. That includes gyms, movie theaters and malls like Destiny USA in Syracuse. “I don’t understand,” Becker said. “Our leaders, communities and businesses were led to believe that there were four phases to reopening. Now that does not seem to be the case. How many phases are there? Are there phases five, six, seven, eight, nine and 10?”

So it looks like we successfully avoided drama with Phase 3, but Phase 4 may come in like a lion. I noticed that McMahon is once again counseling patience to those who complain to him on his Twitter feed — “things can happen over the next few days” — but Becker has a point. When does this really stop? And what do we have to look forward to in the fall when, perhaps, a whole new set of “official” phases are decreed concerning college and school openings? (I don’t go to a gym, but it is indeed frustrating that they can take more precautions than grocery stores have to and still can’t open. I still won’t go back into a Target or Walmart if I can help it, and my Wegmans contact is still highly limited.)

Onondaga County has not been seeing the uptick in COVID positives that Erie County has seen over recent weeks. In fact, on Monday it seemed like we were tantalizingly close to “community spread zero” (only two such cases). Today’s numbers are closer to what CNY has seen in recent weeks with 16 new cases, only six being community spread. The nursing-home asymptomatics also have started to leave the hospitals, finally.

If only county officials could have some photo ops with big giant checks. That isn’t going to happen any time in the near future. Although McMahon’s proposed 4% residential energy tax finally cleared the legislature (by a vote of 10-6, not along partisan lines), Albany has followed through on its threat to cut cities’ fiscal year-end aid payments, so Syracuse itself takes a $12 million hit.

On a lighter note, and because I love to read the fine print, what are the new zoo babies to be called? The snow leopard cub is being named via contest to choose a New York State-themed name. (The CE apparently named the penguin chick after himself.)

Monday, June 22 update

NYS update: Cuomo is no longer with us, yet his disembodied voice continues to be heard — on radio, MSNBC, etc. And just like that, Northeastia is back as a concept, as the governor is publicly musing about the possibility of stranger danger and seeing if the rest of the Tri-State area would like to get on board with 14-day quarantines for travelers coming from the nether states.

(Much as I would like to bash Florida, a widely reported story about Florida’s governor requiring ICUs to report only patients needing “intensive care,” which sparked guffaws all over the Internet today, is not as dumb as it sounds. It actually reminds me of the recent battles faced here at home by local leaders dealing with COVID hospitalization numbers and nursing home patients — although in this case it’s about a governor trying to weigh accurate ICU numbers from hospitals and not local leaders forced to report bogus hospitalization numbers by the governor’s office.)

Onondaga County update: Today, after a week’s hiatus, a county briefing was held, although it’s understood they will be less and less frequent. The CE has now taken to Twitter to deliver daily updates and I would imagine that with the community spread solidly stabilized, and with no more daily Cuomo briefings to clean up after, there isn’t a lot of material from day to day. However, when asked at today’s session if he thought it would be harder to get information from the state because Cuomo’s daily televised court has ceased, McMahon thought we might be hearing a lot more from the governor now that reporters wouldn’t be around — just not in his corporeal Albany form.

There was a tick upward to 12 community spread cases on Friday (the daily average is more like 5-7), but I’d bet that had to do with cases uncovered at the confusingly named Champlain Valley apple packing plant in Oswego, where some of the workers are from Onondaga. By today this had ticked down again to the “new normal.” Warehoused nursing home patients are slowly leaving the hospitals. ICU cases are in the single digits.

McMahon was there supposedly to take questions about reopening — Phase 4 will probably start this Friday — but he started in on Congress’ delay in voting on local recovery measures, and this was the first time I heard him mention NYSAC to a “lay” audience.

The only things left to talk about are mostly City of Syracuse matters such as the shootings on the Near West side over the weekend, a depressing situation all around because after doing so well for the past few months, it feels like things are edging out of control. There never should have been a birthday party of hundreds of people on a street corner in the first place (social distancing). We know why the cops didn’t move to break it up – and gang members figured that out too. Do we just have a power vacuum in the city now?

Unlike the county response to COVID, it feels like city government is struggling to stay on top of events, not all of which are of their own making. The CE has an easier job than the mayor; he isn’t required to police the sheriff’s office and can just shrug speculatively when asked about social distancing enforcement. But we still have a situation where people are justifiably raw about cop behavior, cops are not wanting to charge into a really unwisely gathered group of people and possibly start a riot, and criminals are taking advantage. Where is the outside breath of air or shaft of light in this seemingly hermetically sealed system? Somebody on the (relative) outside of this system who has room to maneuver needs to take charge.

At least we know now what is largely causing the national pyrotechnics plague — fireworks dumping. There are many reasons to dislike Pennsylvania, but the probability that most of the illegal fireworks in New York are coming over that border, is top of my list right now. (Do we have to include Pennsylvania in Northeastia?)

Fireworks are awesome, and in principle, one could enjoy a delightful fireworks display any day of the year. In practice, however, the American Pyrotechnics Association reports that nearly 80 percent of display firework revenue is associated with July Fourth celebrations, which are widespread across the United States. This year, many of those celebrations have been canceled, and many other firework-intensive events like pro sports have also been impacted by the pandemic. This creates the potential for diversion of fireworks from the professional display market to the consumer market, complete with the possibility of bargain-basement prices. Combine increased availability of fireworks with pandemic-induced boredom and you have the recipe for unusually lively summer nights.

Of course, conspiracy theories abound. (Milk, fireworks… wonder what future inventory dumpings we are not thinking of… and what their bizarre effects will be?)